The Northwood nursing home on Gottingen Street in Halifax. Photo: Halifax Examiner

The Province of Nova Scotia will add 236 new long-term care beds in and around the Halifax Regional Municipality and replace or renovate seven nursing homes across the province. Premier McNeil made the announcement at Friday’s COVID-19 briefing.

“This is the first phase of a multi-year overhaul of our long-term care facilities,” announced McNeil, who has one week left to go as premier. McNeil said the province plans to add $10.5 million to the Capital Budget each year to build and upgrade nursing homes. The province has been allocating only $2.5 million annually. 

McNeil suggested the increased spending is in response to recommendations by the two-person panel who reviewed the outbreak of COVID-19 at Northwood that claimed the lives of 53 residents last spring. 

The announcement signals a change of heart — or a potential election later this year — after seven years during which the Liberal government announced a total of approximately 300 new beds. McNeil said the initiative announced yesterday does not involve federal money, although long-term care infrastructure is still eligible for up to $82 million dollars through Ottawa’s COVID-19 Resiliency program. Some applications are in the works.

The Northwood Review identified shared bathrooms and bedrooms as major factor in the rapid spread of the coronavirus. (Both the Northwood Group and the province have been named in a lawsuit launched by some family members of residents who died after being infected by COVID.) 

Meanwhile, more than 40% of nursing home residents across Nova Scotia continue to share rooms in homes where double-bunking was the norm until updated standards (2017) required new buildings to be designed with mostly single rooms to improve infection control. 

Friday’s announcement says Northwood will receive funding for a new building to house 144 residents, a gain of 44 beds. The Halifax campus reduced its occupancy by 100 people after the virus tore through Northwood Center. 

A spokesperson for Northwood, Murray Stenton, said the announcement came as a “happy” surprise, so no location for another facility has been designated. The non-profit corporation’s three previous requests to the province for capital funding to reduce the number of shared rooms at its Halifax location were rejected. 

The remaining 192 beds slated for the Halifax area will put out to tender.

The Department of Health has identified six other nursing homes where the buildings will either be replaced or upgraded. They are:

• The Birches, Musquodoboit Harbour
• Shoreham Village, Chester
• Mountain Lea Lodge, Bridgetown
• Grand View Manor, Berwick
• R.C. MacGillivray Guest Home, Sydney
• Foyer Pere Fiset, Chéticamp 

Other nursing homes will be evaluated to see what work needs to be carried out over the “multi -year overhaul.” Multi-year has yet to be defined. Five permanent full-time employees will be hired as project managers. No new money has been announced for hiring more staff to work in the new and improved facilities. 

Opposition Reaction

Too little, too late, said Progressive Conservative leader Tim Houston. 

“Today’s announcement of additional long-term care beds is welcome, but overdue and insufficient,” said Houston in a statement. “There are roughly 1,500 people waiting for a long-term care bed. The fact is investments in long-term care were needed years ago. They were needed before COVID-19, and were needed when more money was devoted to feeding prisoners than was devoted to feeding seniors.”

Last summer, the PCs promised to spend $465 million over several years to create 2,500 long-term care spaces and hire 2,000 additional staff. 

NDP leader Gary Burrill applauded the announcement as good news for seniors and staff who work in long-term care homes.

“The NDP is proud to have worked with families, advocates, unions and community organizations to push the Liberals to make these necessary investments,” said Burrill. “I want to thank everyone who has been pushing the government to act. Your efforts have made this investment possible. Unfortunately, this investment will not go far enough and comes too late for the families, residents, and staff who had to endure the COVID-19 outbreak at Northwood.”

Jennifer Henderson is a freelance journalist and retired CBC News reporter.

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